Tet 5

During the fight for the citadel, as in the other battles for South Vietnam’s towns and cities at the time, ubiquitous television crews were present—filming for overnight transmission to millions of American viewers the extraordinary drama of their husbands, sons and brothers in action. In one segment, showing Harrington’s com¬pany firing from behind a stone wall at an unseen enemy, a grimy marine paused for a few moments to reply wearily to a correspondent’s questions.
What’s the hardest part of it?
Not knowing where they are—that’s the worst thing. Riding around, running in sewers, the gutter, anywhere. Could be any¬where. Just hope you can stay alive, day to day. Everybody just wants to go back home and go to school. That’s about it.
Have you lost any friends?
Quite a few. We lost one the other day. The whole thing stinks, really.
Seventeen members of Harrington’s company lost their lives in the struggle for the citadel, and nearly one hundred and fifty U.S. marines were killed during the entire Hue battle, as well as four hundred South Vietnamese troops. An estimated five thousand Communist soldiers met their death—most of them annihilated by American air and ar¬tillery strikes that also inflicted a heavy toll on the civilian population. Reflecting on the engagement in an interview after the war, Harrington evoked a phrase coined elsewhere in South Vietnam during the Tet offensive. “Did we have to destroy the town in order to save it? Well, I don’t think that the North Vietnamese and Vietcong were about to give it up even if we’d surrounded Hue and tried to starve them out. We had to go in and get them. There was no other way, except to dig them out. But we didn’t go in there simply to show how great our weapons were, how much destructive power we possessed. We did our best to avoid malicious damage. Yet, when we had to destroy a house, we destroyed it.”
Early in March, the U.S. command reported that some two thou¬sand American and four thousand South Vietnamese soldiers had died since the start of the Tet offensive a month before. Westmoreland’s intelligence officers reckoned as well that fifty thousand enemy troops had been killed, and, despite their spotty record, the estimate was plausible—as I gathered from Dr. Duong Quynh Hoa, a prominent Communist figure, in 1981 at her villa in Ho Chi Minh City.
“We lost our best people,” she said mournfully, recalling that Viet¬cong military units composed mostly of indigenous southerners had borne the brunt of the fighting and suffered the heaviest casualties. Over the next year, she went on, the southern Communist political organization was to be badly battered by the CIA’s Phoenix program, a covert campaign designed to uproot the Vietcong’s rural structure. So growing numbers of North Vietnamese agents were sent south to fill the vacuum. They rebuilt the southern Communist apparatus, and they remained after the war to manage it—often antagonizing their southern comrades, who, despite an abstract commitment to national cohesion, clung to their regional identity. Many southerners viewed them as rigid, doctrinaire, alien and even corrupt carpetbaggers, and Dr. Hoa made no secret of her loathing for them. “They behave as if they had conquered us,” she told me.
Soldiers, whatever their convictions, cannot be inspired to plunge into ambitious military ventures without the assurance of success. As they prepared for the gigantic Tet campaign, Communist cadres conducted a vigorous propaganda program designed to persuade the North Viet¬namese and Vietcong forces that their goal was within grasp. They advised the troops in a series of directives and meetings that the “general offensive and uprising” represented a “golden opportunity” to liberate South Vietnam and promised them that the restive southern population would join in the struggle to crush the American “ag¬gressors” and topple the “tyrannical” Saigon administration. Ho Chi Minh, then old and ailing, threw his enormous prestige behind the effort. Just before Christmas, in his first public appearance in four months, he addressed a rally in Hanoi and urged the people of both Vietnams to achieve “even greater feats of battle” during the year ahead. On January 1, 1968, Hanoi Radio broadcast a poem he had written to dramatize the special urgency of the moment.
This spring far outshines previous springs.
Of triumphs throughout the land come happy tidings.
Forward!
Total victory shall be ours!
The passionate exhortations, coupled with the frenzied enemy at¬tacks, prompted General Westmoreland to portray the Tet blitzkrieg as a desperate “go-for-broke” bid by the enemy to avert inevitable defeat—not unlike the Battle of the Bulge staged by the Germans during the final days of World War II. Some American analysts also interpreted the dynamic enemy push as primarily an attempt to dismay the American people, whose support of the war seemed to be waning. But the Communist decision was characteristically more complicated, as General Vo Nguyen Giap, the principal architect of the campaign, explained in an interview in Hanoi after the war: “For us, you know, there is no such thing as a single strategy. Ours is always a synthesis, simultaneously military, political and diplomatic—which is why, quite clearly, the Tet offensive had multiple objectives.”
In September 1967, Giap had published a lengthy appraisal of the current situation in Vietnam. He conspicuously avoided any mention of the imminent Tet campaign, then being planned secretly. But his assessment furnished clues to the Communist motives for the offen¬sive—and, paradoxically, resembled the judgments that many skep¬tical American officials in Washington were beginning to reach about the war at the same time.
Giap implicitly conceded that the struggle was deadlocked—at least on the battlefield. The Communists lacked the strength to match America’s superior firepower, while the U.S. forces were too dis¬persed in protecting their bases and other installations to pursue the elusive North Vietnamese and Vietcong troops. In Giap’s estimation, however, the impasse favored the Communists. The United States could not escalate the conflict without committing additional soldiers and materiel, nor could it boost its investment without reducing both its global defense responsibilities and its domestic economic and social programs. Thus, Giap concluded, the United States was overex¬tended—its resources strained by a little war that had grown into a big war.

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